Does the Right Tone at the Top Guarantee Success? Part 1

I spent the morning today speaking at Centre for Accounting Ethics Symposium called “Accounting Ethics and Tone at the Top” (put on by the School of Accounting and Finance, University of Waterloo). I was part of a panel discussion that took on the provocative question of whether positive ethical tone at the top ensures success.

It’s a provocative question because the word “ensure” pretty much points to a negative answer. Success is never guaranteed in business. In fact, it is the constant fear of failure that drives competition, that drives the pursuit of efficiency, that drives innovation. Nothing – literally nothing – guarantees success. Will a killer product ensure success? Of course not! You need the right financial model, the right marketing channels, the right organization, and the right competitive environment too. Will a great team ensure success? No, of course not. Other organizations have great teams, too. You also need the right leadership, a product that consumers want, and so on.

So positive tone won’t guarantee success, but neither will anything else. The right tone won’t guarantee ultimate victory in the marketplace, but that’s hardly a criticism. The fact that a positive ethical tone won’t guarantee success doesn’t mean it’s not important, indeed, essential. Without it, an organization’s chances of long-term success – defined either in terms of integrity or in terms of the bottom line – are considerably diminished.

So what do we mean when we refer to “tone”? Tone is much more complicated than it sounds.

In this context ethical “tone” means the tone or tenor that a leader sets with regard to choices between right and wrong, between more and less admirable forms of behaviour. Tone is the signal that is sent from top to bottom within an organization about what kind of behaviour is to be admired and emulated, and what kinds of behaviour will not be tolerated. Ethical leadership means taking responsibility for the tone you set.

But tone takes many forms. It is crucial to see that setting the right tone means much more than just sounding ethical. It also means acting ethically, and being seen as acting ethically. Tone consists in the set of signals given through the words a leader says and the deeds she does and the attitudes she displays.

It means doing what you can to manage that elusive something called “organizational culture,” and knowing that culture trumps strategy every time.

In particular, setting the right tone means avoiding – in both words and deeds – excuses and rationalizations. Rationalizations (“I had no choice;” “No one was really hurt;” “It’s not my job;” “It’s a stupid rule anyway…”), are an absolutely key ingredient in a great many instances of wrongdoing. And we don’t generally make up rationalizations on our own and learn how to apply them from scratch. We learn them, unfortunately, from our role models, from people we look up to, from people we see as leaders. Leaders can and must set the tone, in neither helping themselves to such rationalizations, nor tolerating them when used by others.

Setting the right tone also means fostering open conversation about ethics, about the obligations of and obligations within your organization. It means putting ethics on the table. It means letting those who work for you know that it’s OK to ask questions about ethics, and to make values and principles an explicit part of their decision-making. A leader needs to build decision-making capacity and empower employees to take responsibility.

We can sum up the significance of tone this way: A great deal has been written about ethical leadership, and the significance of ‘tone at the top.’ That literature might be usefully summed up by two sweeping statements, two unavoidable truths:

1) Ethics must come from the top down. People take their cues from their leaders. Yes, people learn their basic values from their parents and other childhood role-models, long before they become employees. But they learn how to enact those values in a business context from their workplace mentors and leaders. All of us learn basic lessons about honesty and integrity from our parents. But few of us learn about technical concepts such as Conflict of Interest from our parents. They don’t teach us about the moral obligations embodied in fiduciary relationships, or about how to balance the various interests at stake in a quasi-adversarial relationship between buyer and seller. We need leaders – specifically business leaders – to teach us those things. So: Ethics must come from the top down.

The second grand lesson is this:

2) Ethics cannot come from the top down. It cannot be imposed. You need buy-in. You can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink. You can hand every employee a copy of “their” brand-new code of ethics, commissioned by HR and endorsed by the CEO and the Board. But that doesn’t guarantee that anyone will read it, let alone take it to heart. A code won’t overcome an organizational culture that puts short-term profit-seeking above all else; or a culture where individuals put moral blinders on, focusing narrowly on their own jobs rather than taking responsibility for the ethically-significant elements of the organization’s mission. It won’t make up for a culture that tacitly endorses playing fast and loose with accounting rules. That’s why tone – not just sermons handed down from on high – is so important.

A focus on tone can of course easily become confused with a focus on words, and on the personal integrity that a leader takes him- or herself to have. We see this all the time. When the mayor of a major city prides himself on integrity, on wanting to “clean up City Hall” and to put an end to the “gravy train,” but then cannot recognize a blatant conflict of interest when he sees one, you see “tone at the top” gone awry.

In my next blog entry, I’ll continue this topic by addressing what it means to focus on “tone at the top” and whether it can ensure or at least contribute to success.

1 comment so far

  1. [...] my last blog entry, I began a discussion of the question of the extent to which the right “tone at top” [...]


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